Exams are ‘disempowering’ students and ignoring their abilities, international experts warn

Exams too often “disempower” learners by failing to give them the chance to demonstrate their full range of knowledge and skills, according to a group of leading academics and policy advisers from around the world.

A report published this week says assessments are too often based on “narrow concepts of achievement and performance”. This means they fail to identify students’ full potential, and instead “reinforce assumptions and expectations about learners’ capabilities”.

The document, published by the Salzburg Global Seminar, says tests “rely too heavily on simplistic tasks” and do little to improve the quality of teaching. “Most current approaches reinforce education systems where gaps are widening and goals are narrowing,” it argues.

“When based on narrow concepts of achievement and performance, [assessments] rely too heavily on simplistic tasks, disempower learners and teachers, and contribute little to improving pedagogy and professional development.”

The report was compiled by a group of 40 policy advisers, government officials, academics and campaigners from 18 countries who gathered at Schloss Leopoldskron (pictured) in Salzburg, Austria, last week for a five-day education seminar.

It calls for an overhaul of qualifications so that they “focus on the variety of skills and knowledge that lead to success in contemporary educational and occupational environments”. This would require better testing methods and “additional metrics for achievement and performance”.

The report also calls for children to be assessed using the language that they speak at home, warning that if children are assessed in their second language, low scores may reflect that rather than “conceptual difficulty”. If it is not possible to test in a pupil’s first language, the report says that results should be interpreted with caution.

The 40 experts call for extra investment in raising teachers’ professional status and in helping teachers to analyse test results so that schools can make better use of formative assessment.

They say there should be “ethical guidelines” about how exam results are communicated, “to ensure these do no harm”. Test results should not be treated as “absolute sum-scores which may feed into competitive comparisons or ranking”, but instead as an indication of learners’ relative strengths and weaknesses, it adds.

Clare Shine, vice-president and chief programme officer at Salzburg Global Seminar, told TES: “[The call for a wider range of skills and abilities to be taken into account] will be hugely welcomed by teachers and parents, who have an intuitive understanding that whether a learner is doing well or badly, we’re only able to measure a small aspect of their competencies.

“[During the conference] we saw very different constituencies cooperating and developing a mutual understanding that led to these recommendations, and we hope they will spark a wider debate.”

The recommendations come as the government introduces a series of reforms in England that will increase the use of linear, high-stakes academic testing and compel almost all pupils to focus on academic subjects under the Ebac measure.

But a spokesman for the Department for Education said it was introducing a “broad and balanced curriculum” and investing £5 million to “help young people develop the confidence, motivation and resilience they will need to succeed as adults in modern Britain”.

He said the government’s accountability system would “ensure all children are equipped with the skills they need to keep pace with universities’ and employers’ demands.”

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